Africa 2013

Phase ten - South Africa

Thursday November 7th - Johannesburg, South Africa to Matsapha, Swaziland

We arrived back at Lanseria airport at 0800. Fees were paid, and flight plan filed, at a kiosk right next to the door to arrivals; it could not have been easier. We sat in the cafe while waiting for our passenger, Khosi, to arrive. One of the charities that Sophia was supporting, the Girl Child Education Trust, was active in Swaziland, sending the orphaned daughters of nurses (the charity fills a very specific niche) to school to ensure they get an education. Khosi was one such child, now in her early twenties and studying in Johannesburg, and the charity had suggested we fly her with us to Swaziland for the weekend.

She soon arrived and we made our way through customs and immigration, and back to the aircraft. Preflight completed, it was time to go, and we went back through the rigamarole of calling Apron Control, Ground Control, and finally Tower to get permission for takeoff. This was duly granted and we were on our way east towards Swaziland; one of the few remaining Kingdoms in the world. The king of Swaziland, apparently, had a harem of 15 or so wives. This harem was topped up regularly in a ceremony where all the attractive young women dance topless for him to allow him to pick out his favourites. Apparently the harem had, somehow, ended up with an American wife for some time but she got fed up and returned home; after this the King banned miniskirts from the country as they reminded him of her.

We flew at reasonably low level across Johannesburg, to remain clear of the TMA for the main international airport. Soon after takeoff we passed through the control zone of Waterkloof, the country's main Air Force base. This clearance was granted without any hesitation, and with a decent tailwind we zoomed through the zone and were soon out the other side of the city and headed for the border. The industry on the ground below was initially dominated by agriculture, changing to enormous open cast mines as we moved further from the city limits. These were serviced by colossal drag-line excavators. Flying further still, the terrain became more rugged and the land covered with neatly farmed conifer trees, continuing over the Swaziland border.

Entering Swaziland, we could relax a little. After a new law, passed within the previous year, Swaziland had banned witches on broomsticks from flying any higher than 500ft above the ground. Being much higher than 500ft AGL, this was a collision risk we could therefore banish from our minds. We descended towards Matsapha airport and we cleared onto a left base for landing; traffic already in the pattern was not a witch on a broomstick, but a Cessna 152 (which it could be argued the witch's craft would rival in size and speed). A camera crew producing a documentary were waiting at the airport for us, and so we performed a couple of touch and goes before landing to a full stop to ensure that they could take plenty of footage.

Swaziland had laid on an excellent welcome. We were taken straight to the airport VIP lounge where we were initially greeted by staff from the Wellbeing Centre (who were coordinating the visit), and representatives from the Ministry of Health. After introductions we were put into a car and driven to the Ministry of Health, where an introduction session was conducted with the Minister of Health for Swaziland. From here we headed to a hospital visit, and then finally to the guest house where we would be staying. There was a little confusion for a while about our student, Khosi; everyone had thought that she was going home for the weekend to her guardians, but she had decided very firmly that she was now part of the team and would be staying with us. An extra room for arranged for the night, until a proper plan could be made the next day!

We did not have long to rest at the guest house. After quick showers, we were collected again and driven to the evening "reception". This was held at an ambulance station in the countryside a moderate drive from our accommodation. Things did not seem to have entirely been thought through, and we sat with around 15 rather uncommunicative locals in a circle of chairs in a large very dimly lit room. After an hour of this, it was announced that the food had been delayed; a few speeches were made, the food finally arrived, and we eventually managed to escape back to the hotel and to sleep.

Friday November 8th - Matsapha, Swaziland and the journey to Barberton

I had decided to make the most of this fairly long stop in Swaziland, and spend it at Barberton Airfield in South Africa. This is the home of CC Pocock, a celebrated bush pilot who offers courses in advanced bush and mountain flying. This involves learning the true limits of the aircraft, and applying the new knowledge and confidence to access landing sites that would have been thought impossible before; fire breaks, roads, and the trickiest of mountain airstrips that are built in tight valleys or up the side of steeply sloping hills.

I rented a car from the airport in Matsapha, and drove north. The roads were of good quality and clear of traffic; I made the 180km journey in a total of just over two hours. The route first headed through the capital of Swaziland, Mbabane, before crossing the land border into SOuth Africa. This process is quick and straightforward; the other side of the border the road reduced to two lanes but it was possible to maintain good speed. The route then headed northeast through the hills before descending to join the highway just north of Barberton.

CC bought the land for Barberton airfield over a decade ago, at which time it was nothing but bush. Since then he has carved out a good quality grass runway, and built a combined house, hangar, and guest lodge where he hosts pilots who have come to take his three day course. In addition he performs at airshows, and even hosts one each year at his own airfield. On arrival I was greeted by CC and his partner Tine, who showed me to my room and made me feel very welcome. CC and Tine are also accomplished cooks, and during the three days I stayed with them I ate better than I had at any time throughout the trip!

Saturday November 9th - Barberton, South Africa

First breakfast was at 0530, with flying starting at 0600. This helps to ensure cool temperatures and calmer winds! After a quick initial flight for CC to assess my piloting, we landed and after a second breakfast briefed for flight number two; testing the real limits of the aircraft. This exercise, carried out at a safe height, enables you to truly understand the limits of the aircraft's performance before you start to manoevre close to the ground. This done, we landed once again for further briefings. Each flight was short but intense; we never went more than a mile or so from the airfield so no time was wasted flying to and fro!

For the rest of the day we practiced stalls, spins, and a mutitude of take-off and landings including extreme short field landings. By the time we knocked off at lunch time I was quite worn out and happy to spend an afternoon resting and doing a little work!

Sunday November 10th - Barberton, South Africa

I rose again at 0520, and by 0600 we were ready to fly. The weather was a stark change to the previous day; overcast a couple of thousand feet above the field, with even lower cloud shrouding the mountains. Our first flights, around the airfield, concentrated on perfecting the take offs and landings; as well as this we practiced low level flying, going so far as to fly under the power lines rather than over them! This flight completed, we headed away from the field to visit some challenging bush strips.

The first was situated up the side of a mountain, at a slope steep enough that a car would have needed 1st gear to drive up it. Well before touchdown one must make the decision whether or not to abort; once you get past a certain point you are committed to landing and no go-around is possible. After landing it's necessary to keep a reasonable amount of power on, as if you stop on the slope you risk being unable to get started again! Take-off, downhill in the opposite direction, had gravity working in our favour and was remarkably quick.

The next strip was also steeply sloped, although not quite as dramatically as the first. The real challenge here was the location in a small valley; to approach, one needed to fly just a few feet above the ground hugging a hill in the descent. At the abort point you decide whether to escape through a gap to the right, or commit to landing. This strip was a great deal of fun, and we went in and out twice, taking advantage of the opportunity to practice!

On the way back we overflew a fire-break. This is an area stripped of all vegetation except grass, to impede the spread of wildfires; and is also ideal for off-airfield landings! We flew into it, careful to account for the slopes in both uphill and across-the-strip directions. As we slowed, CC let out an exclamation; he'd just spotted a section of his aircraft's tail-cone which he had lost some months before and ended up replacing! After rescuing the errant aircraft part we took off again and headed back to base.

Monday November 11th - Barberton, South Africa and back to Swaziland

CC and I went for one final flight in the morning. We spent 45 minutes in the air around the airfield; first practicing "unusual attitudes" and recovery, and then multiple take-offs and landings of all types. This was just what I needed to become fully confident with all the techniques learnt over the past couple of days, and I left Barberton that afternoon extremely happy that I had been to take the course.

The drive back to the hotel in Swaziland was not as smooth as the drive outbound. Over the high ground there was fog thicker than any I had seen before, and much of the drive was done at a snail's pace. Secondly, despite extensive research I had been unable to locate exactly where the hotel was; despite managing to find the address, no map had the relevant street listed. This should probably not be a surprise in a place like Swaziland. I set out, knowing the general area, and after arriving back in Matsapha I stopped at a garage to ask the way. A lady nearby overheard and kindly offered to guide me; it turns out that the guest house was run by her church! Sophia and I waited for our host to collect us for dinner at 1900, as had been promised, but 90 minutes later with no sign of him we gave up and arranged a takeaway pizza. Perfect!

Tuesday November 12th - Matsapha, Swaziland to Maseru, Lesotho

While Sophia went to the offices of our hosts for one last visit, I made my way to the airport and returned the rental car. I also prepared everything for departure, so we could get away as quickly as possible. Matsapha airport was easy to negotiate and it did not take long to fuel, flight plan, and pay; around mid-day we were on our way.

An initial strong tailwind shifted 180 degrees and became a strong headwind for most of the flight. We climbed to 10,500ft to ensure good clearance from all the terrain; Swaziland is somewhat mountainous, and Lesotho extremely so! There was a fair amound of thunderstorm activity around but visibility was good, and despite the storm-scope being almost completely illuminated with lightning strikes we were able to pick our way through the storms while keeping them at a safe distance, always having a diversion airport nearby in case we needed to get on the ground.

Coming into Lesotho we were directed to land on runway 29; this is a 3,000ft crosswind runway, subordinate to the main 10,000+ft runway. There was a 15 knot breeze blowing directly across the main runway, so despite the 5,000ft+ elevation we were down and stopped within about 500ft; CC's teaching was already showing dividends! Communications with our hosts in Lesotho had been poor so we were not sure if we were being collected. A van from their centre was parked outside but there was no-one in it; a close inspection, however, revealed a sign on the front seat with "Sophia Webster" written on it. It was lucky we'd looked closely as we had been about to get a bus into town! We eventually located the driver and he took us to our room in the Tribute Guest House; Sophia went shopping and returned with a barbecued chicken and other goodies, which served us well for dinner.

Wednesday November 13th - Maseru, Lesotho

Our hosts had only been able to find one night of accommodation for us, due to a large motorbike event going on in Lesotho. Sophia had not shared this little fact with me before we arrived! I spent the morning in the lobby of our first guest house, working, until Sophia and the driver returned at about noon. The medical crew had decided that it would be good to fly to some remote villages the next day before departing for Port Elizabeth, and so I accompanied them to the Flying Doctor Service at the military airport to talk to their pilots and find out more information about the proposed destination.

The first choice of strip was quickly abandoned. It was at 7,000ft elevation, 1,500ft long, with a dirt surface and a challenging location. I had no interest in visiting such a strip without having properly put the aircraft through all the test flight process advocated by CC, and practicing mountain flying rather more. We settled on two alternate strips, both more than 1,000ft lower and significantly longer. I gathered all available information, stopped in at the CAA to secure the required permits, and was then taken by the driver to our newly located guest house for the second night where I spent the afternoon writing and reading. A lack of an internet connection limited productivity in the field of work!

Thursday November 14th - Maseru, Lesotho to Port Elizabeth, South Africa

We were up before day-break in order to make the most of the cooler temperatures and calmer winds in the morning. The Flying Doctor Service used the same tactics to good effect. We arrived at the airport around 6am and were not entirely unsurprised to find that the airport staff, who had promised to be present, were nowhere to be seen. Unlike many of the airports that we had been to, the security at this one was fairly tight and we could find no holes in the fence or similar to crawl through and be on our way, so we waited and eventually made it to the aircraft a little later than expected.

We set off for our first destination, Qacha's Nek, with the Secretary general of the nurses association in the back seat. He would be accompanying Sophia to the clinics, while I remained with the aircraft on the unsecured strips that we were going to visit. Qach's Nek was located on the south-eastern border of Lesotho, clear across the country from the capital where we were based. The mountain peaks along the way topped out around 9,000ft so we had a long climb to 11,000ft cruising altitude as we headed into the interior. We heard medical service C206s on the radio headed out to strips much like the ones we were on our way to. There was a brisk breeze already blowing from directly behind us, so the we were only in the air for forty minutes before approaching our destination for a fly-by of the strip and inspection of its condition.

Qacha's Nek was a paved strip, with a fairly steep slope. Despite a slight tailwind, I elected to land uphill and used only around half of the 2,500ft strip. Ground speeds were made even quicker by the 6,100ft elevation, but the slope really helped with slowing down. I spent a pleasant hour with the aircraft in the cool morning sun, sorting through to find anything that could be thrown away. Might as well use the time productively. Aircraft tidied, I sat back in the sun and watched the sheep until the others returned from their first clinic visit ready to move on to Nkau.

We shot down the runway, feeling a little like we were departing from a ski slope, and stayed at relatively low level along the valley for the short flight to Nkau. The winds were higher by this time, and blowing almost directly across the 2200ft dirt strip, but once again we used less than half the runway with judicious application of the skills practiced in Barberton. It was breezy enough that we made sure to tie the aircraft down as soon as we stopped to ensure it stayed in place, and the doctors headed off on foot to the clinic a mile away across the valley. I walked the length of the strip, as I had done in Qacha's Nek, to take a look at the surroundings and pass the time.

The doctors arrived back with a cooler of samples to be flown back to the capital for analysis; any small aircraft visiting the strips was generally assumed to be from the Flying Doctors! Medical visit completed, we rolled out down the strip and set off on the trip back to Maseru international to drop off our passenger, refuel, and depart for Port Elizabeth. The wind was against us, and the temperatures higher, so it took quite some time and creative use of updrafts to reach a safe altitude and head back over the mountains. Along the way we passed overhead Matekane airstrip, perched on the edge of a dramatic cliff and in recent years made famous in all kinds of online "World's most dramatic airport" articles. Descent and landing back at Maseru were uneventful.

Maseru was where we hit problems. Requesting fuel over the radio as we taxied in, we were met with the news that "No, no fuel here since 1997!". One would have thought that this might be enough time to update the published airport data to note this important fact, but apparently not. There was a private operator on the field with jet fuel who usually sold to visitors, but the two women in the office would not even talk to us because the boss was not present; no luck there then. We spoke to the Flying Doctors who suggested that we fly the few minutes to the air force base in the middle of town and buy some fuel there; we took their advice to arrange permission for the visit through the tower controller at the international airport.

The flight to the air base took around seven minutes and we were cleared straight in to land. It was not a terribly big place and we very quickly found the jet fuel pump and shut down. We were greeted by Flying Doctors personnel who were very happy to see us, and military personnel who claimed that we had no clearance and wanted to know what we were dong. With a little help from the Flying Doctors we mollified the air force, and persuaded them to check with their tower controller. The next hurdle was that the air force claimed they could not sell fuel, and only the Flying Doctors could; the Doctors only had AVGAS. As with many things in Africa, a few minutes discussion and the presence of cash in hand (to pay for fuel, not for bribes!) smoothed our progress and we loaded up all the Jet-A we needed for our departure. The Flying Doctors treated us to a quick lunch and we were on our way.

We had arranged with immigration at the international airport for our passports to be stamped before we left there, so we could depart directly from the air base. We could therefore fly directly to Port Elizabeth, an expected three hour journey. There were scattered thunder clouds along the route, but with the good visibility it was very easy to avoid them. As we approached Port Elizabeth the cloud started to close in, so I elected to fly the ILS approach into PE. There was a strong wind, but straight down the runway, and we were soon parked on the international apron and headed in to pass through customs and immigration.

Sophia stayed with the bags while I went with a ground handler to pay the fees; the only place that we had paid fees in advance. The money was taken by the fire service for some reason; this done I was returned to the aircraft so that I could taxi up to the GA area. Strangely there were no tie-down rings, only the buckets of concrete that are so often found for light aircraft tie downs. For some reason, people seem to think that weights that they can easily carry around (and could comfortably go flying with them in the plane) magically become effective tie downs once secured to the wings with a bit of rope. I parked with the tail into the wind and tied the tail to the fence and a cluster of several concrete buckets, figuring that as long as the wind couldn't get under the rear of the aircraft and lift it up we'd be in a decent position.

A few minutes after I made it back to the terminal Sophia's friend, Dr Mabenge, arrived to collect us. He took us straight to our bed-and-breakfast accommodation which was one of the best places we'd stayed so far, although a little far out of the city. After such a long day we relaxed with take-away pizza and planned our few days in PE!

Friday November 15th - Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Sophia spent the day out and about with Dr Mabenge. I stayed behind in the accommodation to catch up with work as well as go out and explore a little, visiting some shops nearby. That evening we set out by taxi to go to the movies, something we hadn't done since the trip began! First, a quick stop at the airport to further secure the aircraft as severe weather was predicted to arrive; it was already getting extremely windy and rainy. We located more concrete buckets (every little helps, I suppose) and also had Shell fill the tanks completely which probably made a much bigger difference. By the time we had finished it was fairly late and we made the decision to simply return home. We were both tired, and could go out the next evening instead!

Saturday November 16th - Port Elizabeth, South Africa

The bad weather that had rolled in overnight continued. Nothing was planned on the medical front, so Sophia and I spent the day in our accommodation catching up on work and planning for the last few days of the trip. We did manage, finally, to get out in the evening for dinner and a film; it felt very strange indeed to be wandering around a mall with familiar restaurants and shops after so long!

Sunday November 17th - Port Elizabeth, South Africa

We started early on Sunday, as Dr Mabenge had invited Sophia to talk to his church. There was a service exclusively for women, and the project seemed to be a good subject to talk about. I operated the camera, as usual. Sophia's presentation was becoming extremely polished by now and was very well received. Much to our surprise, at the conclusion of the presentation one of the ladies watching stood up and started to sing, followed quickly by the entire rest of the audience. They filed to the front of the church and gathered around Sophia, dancing and singing the whole time. Sophia was thoroughly taken aback but wore a huge grin throughout!

That afternoon Dr Mabenge dropped us off at a shopping mall for lunch, and to start easing ourselves back into the real world! It was obvious that we were still in 'trip' mode as we soon found ourselves in the outdoor store, browsing the survival section.

Monday November 18th - Port Elizabeth, South Africa to George, South Africa

Dr Mabenge dropped us back at the airport and came to see the aircraft. The weather was excellent for our penultimate flight to George, on the southern coast of South Africa. The route took us along the coast, and we spent much of the flight looking out for whales with no success. We landed at George after barely an hour and a half, and were met by a small crowd. Sophia's doctor friend Marinus, who would be hosting us, was there along with experienced aviator Sharon Malcolm who had previously helped us out with advice in Cameroon, and now was meeting us at her home base to help us with parking and local procedures. Finally, we were met by a reporter from the local news who was planning a story to cover the project.

That evening we went out for dinner with Marinus and a few of his friends from the city, also in the medical field. The next day Sophia's father would arrive from Cape Town to join us on the final flight into Cape Town International.

Tuesday November 19th - George, South Africa

With no internet at Marinus' house, I settled down in a local restaurant to work for the morning while he and Sophia ran one final training session for the trip. They joined me around lunch time, together with Sophia's father who had just arrived from Cape Town. We spent a little time enjoying a meal and making final plans for the next day before heading to the nearby golf club where Sophia was to give her presentation to the Rotary Club. Interest was high, and after the 20 minute presentation and a long question and answer session we retired to the bar for further chat about medicine and flying. We returned to Marinus' house reasonably early; we had a big day ahead of us!

Wednesday November 20th - George, South Africa to Cape Town, South Africa

Conditions for the flight to Cape Town looked decent, with some cloud cover along the route but well above instrument flight minima. The three of us said our goodbyes, and climbed aboard. A strong headwind would make the flight slower than usual, but by now we didn't mind taking our time. George air traffic control was not particularly competent; or at least, very timid. We had to wait for several minutes because a single 737 was being pushed back on the (enormous) apron, and despite our taxi route not taking us within a couple of hundred meters of it, ATC wouldn't let us in until it had moved off. Finally we were cleared for takeoff and on our way.

We flew IFR, and before long were passed to Cape Town approach. The wind over the mountains was causing strong up and down drafts and the 182 did not have the power to completely oppose them. Despite variations of only a few hundred feet from our assigned altitude, and our explanation of the issue, approach was constantly on our case about not being spot on our assigned level. We were vectored onto a downwind leg, still in the clouds, and turned onto the ILS approach. Minutes later we were on the ground, mission completed!

We parked up at Cape Town flying club, and were met by Sophia's mother and some of her friends. After a bit of a rest we set off once again on a short flight to Stellenbosch, where the aircraft was to be left; we emptied and cleaned it, and said our goodbyes. Part of us was sad to leave it after so long - the other part of us happy to see the back of it with the electrical issues and the thoroughly awful owner!

The Websters dropped me at the international airport and I collected my hire care for the planned week's holiday around Cape Town. It seemed silly to come all this way and not spend a little time to see the city, as well as relax a bit; after the journey we had just had, we were both extremely worn down. Sophia helped me move my luggage into the hire car and that was it; we parted ways for the first real time in almost four months! It was not to be for long though; the "Welcome to Cape Town" barbecue was just a few days away!

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